- Interior Design
- Limited Editions
- Recent posts
The Ethics of Photoshop Image Manipulation
In this essay, I debate with a reader from China about the Ethics of using image manipulation techniques. This article is a record of an active email conversation with 杨慧华(Pandy). I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation and I hope you will enjoy it too. That is why I choose to publish this with his/her consent. I am defending image manipulation as a form of art wile Pandy challenges the trustworthiness of picture sources.
In the end, it all comes down to a question of Ethics. How and when is it o.k. to change photographs and when do we have to keep from changing them.
His/Her original inquiry (abbreviated)
Dear Andre: My name is Pandy. I read your article on a Chinese website ... (the article title is: The Ten Most Common Photographic Mistakes ). Some problems confuse me by the using of Adobe Photoshop... ... I don't know which photoes is believable on earth. Must all the photoes be photoshoped after a shot? Some person studies hard, has much experience, and bought expensive camera or lens, in order to have good photoes, but more and more common photoes after being photoshoped turn into perfect works. It is unfair. Which photo should be photoshoped? And which one should be not? As a trip photographer, how do you balance the point of nature image and digital one? Did your photoes on your website published after being photoshoped? ... Thanks. Pandy
My initial response:
Many people get upset about Photoshop manipulation. Often the cause is a misunderstanding of Photoshop, its capabilities and the required skills. Even with Photoshop, the old mantra holds true:
Garbage in -> Garbage out
That means you CANNOT turn a lousy photograph into a great photograph by means of Photoshop alone. Photoshop can do amazing things, but it cannot do wonders.
If there is too much dynamic range in a daylight shot with lots of shadows, even Photoshop cannot pull out detail where there is none. Photoshop cannot turn darkness into beautiful color shades and it cannot recover highlights in a completely blown out sky.
Photoshop is a means to an end. Like the pen is for a painter. Creating art with Photoshop is very hard. So hard, that I prefer to drive hundreds of miles to take a photograph the second time rather than trying to fix it in Photoshop (here is a little article I wrote about this: http://www.aguntherphotography.com/fix-in-photoshop.html)
Using Photoshop is just as hard as using a camera. So why do you feel cheated by someone who has the art and craft to turn garbage into beautiful photos (I do not think it is possible). Those skills are hard to learn and it may take several days to manipulate one single photograph to perfection. It is a lot of work and frankly, I am far too lazy to go through that much effort. Virtually all the photographs you see on my website are straight from the camera. I only boosted some color saturation and resized properly.
How would someone fix a bad perspective in Photoshop? In the tutorial about common mistakes, you can see how to change perspective by changing focal length. These things cannot be “fixed” in Photoshop.
If photographers had the skill to turn bad photographs into good photographs or to add anything at will, why should we even go out and take a photograph in the first place? We might as well choose to create the entire photograph in Photoshop alone.
I am certain that painters felt betrayed with the introduction of Cameras and felt cheated by people who did not need any painting skills whatsoever to create beautiful images. After some time we came to recognize photography as art and in some time we will come to recognize Photoshop artists as such. Call them pioneers if you will.
To answer your questions directly:
No photograph must be photoshopped, ever. There is certainly nothing unfair about it either. Who are we to tell someone who is a better Photoshop artist than we are that he cannot peruse his art?
People spend stupendous amounts of money to manipulate images. Artists often render special effects in movies, but you can still tell if a real stuntman was involved. Some things are physically impossible and require rendering. It is the dawn of a new area and we should learn to embrace it with our hearts instead of resisting. If we resist too long, the train will run us over. If we jump on it, we may profit from it. You can choose your destiny.
Maybe I should start using Photoshop a little more, but fortunately, Nature is beautiful as it is. There is not much to be done for a Landscape photographer like myself.
I do not need to balance anything. I only need to choose what to EXCLUDE from my photographs. The strongest pictures always succeed in isolating the subject. Nature is so beautiful, that it is extremely hard to choose what to exclude. Most often elements do not work well in pictures because they distract from the main subject. I could try to spend days to use Photoshop in order to remove it, or I could retake the same picture in a matter of minutes. If I want to be successful in my craft, I need to learn the latter. It saves a lot of time.
I think I may be guilty of operating on 2 pictures on my website. I removed a crane in San Francisco once. There was no other way to exclude it from the scene. Otherwise, I simply do not have enough time to “Photoshop” my pictures.
I received the following response:
But ... Photoshop is not the only one digital tool to fix photoes.
Capture One is an excellent RAW converter. I once had the pleasure to evaluate it, but for cost effectiveness I now primarily use Photoshop’s built in RAW converter or Silkypix.
In the RAW converter, I can adjust sharpness, white balance, saturation and many other “basic” image properties. Photographers have been doing that for a long time through different means.
Fuji Velvia gives very saturated colors while some Kodak Films give pictures a warm tint. Each film has its own properties and generates a certain output. Each film thus represents the world in a completely different way. No film is capable to show nature as it really is, since many alter the color but mostly since their response-curves differ from those of our eyes. B/W films and ISO speeds also influence how a picture will look like.
The lens choice determines perspective. The human focal length is fixed, roughly approximate to 50mm focal length on a 35mm camera. Any photographer, who chooses a different lens, chooses to deviate from the natural perspective. Different perspectives evoke different emotions but also change how a picture looks.
The digital tools are just another link the chain of image manipulation tools. Whether I see a distracting element in my composition and move my position to exclude it from the picture, or whether I see it later on my computer and remove it digitally makes no difference at all.
The computer is just an extension to my camera. It is a better processor, one with intelligence behind it (me), with more capabilities than the camera alone. I thus have a better camera, one that consists of hardware and software.
You mentioned news photos. We must not alter news photos, since they serve a different purpose. The primary purpose of News photos is not to create art (art is secondary), but to tell a story. A story we cannot alter at will so that the picture may look more beautiful. We must hold news photographers, editors and everyone else involved in the news publishing process to a higher (or better different) ethics standard.
However, we must also accept that each photographer chooses what and how to photograph and that the Editors choose which photograph to publish or how to crop it. Thus, they design the message and influence what we see, even if no direct image manipulation is involved.
When you take pictures, you take them for a purpose. If that purpose is to create art, to show your family where you have traveled or to document an event will decide what you do with those pictures and even how you take those pictures.
In a time where manipulation through mass media has never been easier, what do you believe? Every news agency manipulates the masses. Even if it is just due to the Editors beliefs and not an advertising contract or government control. It does not matter what the motivators are, news are manipulative.
What should you belief? That is a tough question to answer since I am neither a philosopher nor a social psychologist.
Use your head! Think about the message! Who benefits from it?
Seek out alternative news sources. Try to find news online and leave your personal comfort space. It is easy to find news that agrees with your belief system and to be swayed by them and lulled deeper and deeper into your faith. Seek out alternatives that contradict your own views.
Seek out discussions with other people who have different backgrounds, are from different countries or belief in completely different things you do.
I do not nearly spend as much emotional effort to verify travel news or sports news than I do to verify political news. The latter tend to be full of subtle influences.
Fortunately, the world of travel photography is not that deep. I mostly have a good time snapping what strays in front of my lens, but I can relate to your question. I do not belief everything I see, but I do not lose any sleep over it either. I just know that news I hear are biased and that every conversation follows an agenda. Even if I talk to a 3 year old, he/she may try to persuade me to buy an ice cream cone for her/him.